The issue of inequality between women and men is a known, worldwide issue. It has been studied for decades and it still is a subject of policy concern in most developed countries. According to the New York Times, women’s median, full time earnings in industrialized countries, were 17.6% lower than men’s on average. Korea and Japan, countries with strong social norms, score the biggest wage gaps, with respectively 37.2% and 25.7% in 2015. Switzerland, despite the patriarchal character of its social norms, is situated between Korea and the rest of the OECD members.

More exactly, in 2014, the Swiss Federal Statistics Office released a survey revealing a wage gap between men and women with the same profile of 18.9% on average. This is slightly higher than the industrialized countries’ average, as gender specialisation is the norm in different areas of life.

Thus, the issue is concerning. The situation has much improved from 1960’s onward, since all countries have been progressively reducing this gap over the years, mainly through education and a policy measures.

Which factors explain this phenomenon? The common answer is to claim that women themselves are indirectly responsible since they are the ones choosing to work fewer hours, taking on lower paying jobs or even opting out of work for longer reasons than men. But is this the truth? Like many common beliefs, they are only partially exact and the reality is far more complicated than that.

Explained and unexplained share in gender pay gap

Experts claim there are several objective reasons such as levels of education and responsibility on the job. However, about 40% of these reasons still remain unexplained.

In the US, where the situation is quite like Switzerland, origins of the Gap are due to several known factors. These explain about 60% of the gap: 10 % can be attributed to work experience, 4 % to the union status, 27% to the choice of occupation and 21.9% to the industry (see graph below). It is indeed fair to assume that some industries such as mining and construction employ more men than women. These tend to pay more than the service industry and other clerical jobs, which pay less and employ more women.

Education, as you can see on the graph, has been reducing the gap since the 1960’s, as more girls are attending higher educations.

Breakdown of the gender wage gap

However, the American Association of Universities shows that education is not the final solution to the issue, since, even with higher degrees, women end up earning less than men. For example, a woman with a master degree will earn the same as a man with a bachelor degree and so on… They obviously earn more than if they had not attended any form of education, but gender still affects earnings.

Age also matters. The gap grows with age, as we can see in the graph below. The older individuals become, the stronger the differences in wages, with a peak in the age bracket of 55-64.

Median weekly Earnings, by Age and Gender, 2016

The trend since the 1960’s is obviously a reduction. However, if we project the trend between 1960 and 2016 in the US, wage equality should be reached in 2059. But if we project the trend between 2001 and 2016, then equal pay will be reached only in 2119. The same pattern is present in Switzerland; the gap has narrowed between 1996 and 2003, but has remained constant since then. Thus, something is to be done.

What about the unexplained part? A professor once explained the following: “It is all based on statistics (as always). Any population has a distribution, thus a mean and a variance. If you take the distribution of men’s performance, they have a slightly lower mean than the women’s performance distribution. Therefore, women are more performant than men, based on the mean of the distribution. However, if one takes a closer look at the variance/volatility/standard deviation of the distribution, men have a slightly lower variance. In other words, an employer interviewing applicant for the job has more chances to hire a Nabila or a Marie Curie when interviewing a female applicant. But since he is quite risk averse and he really doesn’t want to hire a Nabila, he will a priori pay her less to cover the spread.” This looks like a very clever explanation, very diplomatic towards both gender. This is not backed up by strong data yet, and will it ever be?

Decisions have been taken on the policy side, with the first federal law on equal wage and equal opportunity signed in 1996, a little later than other OECD countries. The confederation also ratified the 1997 UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.

What else could be done? Politicians should submit more measures facilitating the duality between work and family. Society should work towards a change in social norms, in order for them to become less patriarchal and more inclined towards women’s progress. Men should look ahead instead of using the past as a model and women should negotiate harder for their wages, since they are worth it.

Charles Emsens